For his twelfth LP, Departed Glories, one of the most influential ambient musicians of his generation heads to the haunted forests of Krakow to hear the ghostly voices of Poland’s dark history. Tom Howells talks to Biosphere about mountain rescues, living in isolation, and how a 100-year-old colour photograph influenced one of his finest albums yet.
Geir Jenssen is synonymous with the cold. It runs through his 30-year discography like glacial ice snaking through a valley, from the freezing imagery that marked his early record covers and track names (and led to the ‘Arctic ambient’ tag he’s been pinned with since the 1990s) to the narrative themes of his work and his well-documented love of mountaineering. It’s a pervasive aesthetic – journalistic catnip – but one he’s conspicuously shifted away from over the past decade. Departed Glories, his new record on Smalltown Supersound, marks the peak of this shift.
Jenssen was born in 1962 in Tromsø, a small Norwegian city located far north, within the Arctic Circle. Despite periodic absences – most recently a short relocation to Krakow – he’s always remained in the area, and currently lives on the picturesque island of Senja, furthering our romantic image of the isolated electronic auteur living in a frozen world.
That persona first emerged in 1986 with the release of White-Out Conditions by Bel Canto, the chilly, 4AD-indebted dream-pop band with which Jenssen wrote two albums. A few years later he recorded an LP of acid techno as Bleep, 1989’s The North Pole by Submarine, before settling on his current pseudonym to explore more abstract, monochromatic pastures.
As Biosphere, Jenssen has released a small mountain of ambient, minimalist techno and drone records over the past 25 years. He’s widely considered a pioneer of the former – 1997’s Substrata is routinely trundled out as an ambient touchstone – but he’s far transcended the association, exploring field recording, drone and sound art across a rich body of work, largely on Touch and his own Biophon label, and drawing on a miscellany of inspirations and sound sources. He’s channelled the Alaskan pilgrimage of ascetic martyr Chris McCandleless (2000’s Cirque), warped and chopped Debussy’s La Mer (2002’s Shenzou), written around Jules Verne’s interstellar novels (2004’s La Autour de la Lune), embraced jazz rhythms (2005’s Dropsonde) and surveyed the vulnerability of Japanese nuclear stations (2011’s N-Plants).
He has also released a set of field recordings from a Himalayan mountaineering trip under his own name (Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings From Tibet) and worked on collaborations, installations and film soundtracks, including the score of the original Norwegian version of Insomnia. Within the broad pantheon of ambient and drone – genres predisposed to blunt textures and easy beauty – Jenssen’s records stand apart because of their narrative ballast.
Even in a discography so varied, Departed Glories represents a change of approach. Conceived while living in Krakow, the new album abandons the aesthetics of snow, science and lifeless industry, and finds a narrative focus in the Polish city’s resistance against Nazi occupation during the second world war and local ‘psychological traumas’ drawn from earlier periods in history. While human voices can be heard across his past records – not least on Substrata’s Twin Peaks samples – Departed Glories is created almost solely from vocals, with Jenssen manipulating old folk recordings into eldritch, enveloping soundscapes.
The record’s cover image is an apt signifier of the music within; taken over a century ago, Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s early colour photograph of a Russian peasant woman is both vivid and unnerving. It’s the atmosphere of that photograph – the feeling of a distant ghost dragged into vivid life – that he evokes with Departed Glories.
Contrary to his icy reputation, Jenssen was warm and engaging when he spoke to me from his home on Senja, apologising periodically for his not-very-broken English as he talked about the histories of Krakow’s haunted woods, the practical limitations of field recording, awkward mountain rescues and the quiet appeal of small-town living.
It’s been five years since N-Plants. Have you been working on Departed Glories for that entire interim?
I started the first sketches when I was living in Krakow in 2010/2011, right after N-Plants. I was often running, cycling or walking in the city’s Las Wolski forest, and I passed this memorial where people had been killed during the second world war, where the Germans had executed hundreds of Poles. Places like that often inspired the music I was making. I could feel this kind of dark atmosphere in some areas because of what happened there. So I tried to imagine the music that could fit to this atmosphere.
I was also making music for a history museum – I can’t remember the exact name, but it was mainly interested in the history of Poland. I was having to listen to old folk music, so I went into some record shops and asked for the oldest recordings they had – from the 1940s and ‘50s maybe. [They were] Ukrainian and Polish – the borders had moved back and forth over the years, so the old folk music and also the language has a lot in common. I just sampled stuff, but I was using this programme, Argeïphontes Lyre, [where] if I sampled something, what came out was completely different from the original sample or recording.
The software was really totally abstract, because you don’t have things like LFO or frequency knobs. It’s just these very abstract names for different buttons – ‘Do you want the turtle to crawl faster?’ for example – so you don’t know what you’re actually doing, you just have to experiment with it. You never know what comes out – I can load a sound and five minutes later I can listen to the result and it’s always a big surprise. For example, I uploaded a track of an old Ukrainian woman, she was perhaps 80 years old, and what comes out of the software is almost Auto-Tuned. So I took the best parts of this and sampled it again and started to work from those snippets.
You also imagined further back into history, incorporating a story about a Polish queen, Bronislawa, into the record.
It’s not exactly correct in the press release – I think she was a Polish nun who fled there when Krakow was attacked by Tartars or something like that. She was living with some other nuns in the wartime area of that forest. You can find lots of places where people have been hiding. Over the years the city has been attacked by various tribes and countries – people have used that area as their refugee area.
The image on the sleeve was kind of an important inspiration. I had that picture on my screen, so I was often looking at it when I was making music to see if it could fit to the atmosphere of that image. That image had exactly the same atmosphere as I wanted to have in the music.
That particular photograph is very evocative. Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s practice of colourisation makes these images vivid and contemporary and very relatable.
I think it’s actually real colour photography – it’s not painted later. It was one of the first colour photos from that area. I like it because that woman looks almost like a ghost, with the super-sharpness and the out-of-focus background, and the feel of that. When I was walking in the forest and passed this memorial, I could almost think that if I really wanted to see some ghosts, maybe it would be possible. I certainly feel that some of these areas were quite haunted.
“With this software, an 80-year-old woman comes out sounding like Elizabeth Fraser”
The record does has a very spectral quality. There’s that idea that ghosts are images of residual energy of things that happened in the past. Is this something you were thinking of? The way that these human sources are kind of warped and mutated?
Yeah, you could say I was also thinking that. Imagine if you had a field recorder where you could record back in time, actually record something from the 1930s or ‘40s? I wanted to have that kind of sound, to have it kind of lo-fi. The sound is hi-fi, but I was also thinking about those kinds of old recordings.
With the folk songs that you picked, were you interested in the stories they were telling, or was it just the texture you were after?
I was trying to find some information, but I don’t speak Polish and I didn’t find much English information. But one goal that I had was that it should be impossible to hear the original. You should not recognise the original because it’s completely changed. And with this software, as I said, an 80-year-old woman comes out sounding kind of like Elizabeth Fraser [Cocteau Twins singer]. The sound that comes out also has a completely different melody and chords. I wanted to make something new; I wasn’t just using the old recordings as – how can I say? – flour to make a new cake.
Were you making field recordings to use alongside the folk samples?
I did, but I didn’t use any of these. I think all of the recordings on the albums are based on the process that I’ve told you about.
You’re often defined as a drone or ambient artist, but what’s your musical remit now, 30 years in?
It’s difficult, I try to change all the time. Right now, I have in my studio three or four new – I mean, old – analogue synthesisers, because I want to make a completely different album. I want to use this early 1980s equipment to make a new record. I always mean to make a completely different album from the previous one.
You never feel any temptation just to make some ambient techno again in the vein of Substrata or Patashnik?
Maybe the new album I’m working on has some of these elements, yeah. It’ll be more inspired by things that I heard when I started to make music in the early ‘80s. Some of those ambient pieces by Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, for example. It’s kind of industrial.
You make use of a lot of external stimuli for inspiration for each record – Polish history for Departed Glories, Japanese power stations for N-Plants and Christopher McCandless and Alaska for Cirque, for instance. What is the next album inspired by?
Maybe I shouldn’t say! [Laughs] It might be that the theme is this movie called The Petrified Forest. It’s an old movie, from the 1940s maybe. [It’s from 1936.] It’s about a guy who goes to Black Mesa, a city near this petrified forest, which is today a national park in Arizona. So right now I’m reading a lot about this park, about the geology and these petrified trees. I just want to use that theme. Maybe it won’t happen, but that’s what I’m thinking right now.
Is the idea of exploration and research important to your identity as Biosphere?
Yeah, it’s more fun to work if you have a concept when you start on a new album – it’s like a movie director in a way, having to come up with a new story every time, it shouldn’t be the same. I find it inspiring. It’s easier than just trying out hundreds of different styles.
I’m particularly drawn to the records you’ve made exploring abstract, extreme minimalism – especially the record inspired by Jules Verne and the Mir space station, Autour de la Lune. Am I right in thinking you used samples taken from Mir?
I don’t think there’s any field recordings from Mir there. I had a bonus track on Substrata called ‘Laika’ that used field recordings from a documentary about Mir, but that’s the only thing I’ve used from the space station.
“I was thinking like Stanley Kubrick – he didn’t make movies to be watched on small TVs!”
I must have misread. I took the extreme bass tones as being something like the samples of intergalactic rumblings NASA release every so often.
Autour de la Lune was more synthesiser programming. That record has really deep bass. I didn’t care if it had too much bass for a normal hi-fi. I was thinking a bit like Stanley Kubrick – he didn’t make movies to be watched on small TVs! I was thinking just to use all the bass I could – it’s super-bassy if you listen to it through a PA, for instance.
Shenzhou was the one where you were incorporating classical music as a sound source. What is it about Debussy that’s particularly ripe for sampling in this way?
At that time, I was often taking samples from classical records – often the quiet parts. Classical music is [about] dynamics – you have these very loud parts and very quiet parts, which I really like because it’s closer to my kind of music. So I bought this CD of Debussy’s complete orchestral works, went through it and sampled it, and I think I made that album in less than one week, super-fast.
Is this incorporation of external sound sources an attempt to load your music with extra meaning?
Yeah. I often feel that even having a really low field recording under the track made in the studio changes the atmosphere completely, you know?
Do you do a lot of practical field recording? Just going out and capturing natural sounds?
It happens, but I don’t do it so often because you can only find a certain amount of sounds. Here, you have water, wind, birds. In the Radio 3 documentary [which aired last January] we went into this tunnel to record, which was really nice, and the ‘singing ice’ [the warm sound drawn from newly frozen sheets of ice on lakes] is interesting, but it’s hard to find really interesting sounds. It can often be [that] you have a synthesiser with pre-programmed sound and it’s like, “I’ve heard this before, why should I record the sea again?”
I often have a recorder with me, but it’s not very often that I go out because I want to record something. So if I find something then I have the chance to record it. Like if you have a camera, if you see something nice you can take a photo. It’s more like that. I should actually do it more, because I have to work harder to find new sounds to record with new equipment. Right now I’m more into studio work.
There’s always been a sense of coldness – the ‘Arctic ambient’ thing – that permeates your work. What initially drew you to that with Substrata?
When I made Microgravity and Patashnik, I had this radio programme in Tromsø where I was talking about astronomy. When I had kids and didn’t have time to be at the radio, it was kind of back to Earth, and life on Earth became more important. I had already kind of explored the space and science fiction things, so maybe they were natural developments.
Did you ever find it constrictive that there was such an expectation of what your persona and sound was?
Yeah. When I started I played in this band Bel Canto, we had the idea of promoting ourselves as coming from the Arctic, and we had these special sounds. It worked – it was really easy for the press to write about, we had this tag. But I never tried to use that so much myself. I think it’s just because I’m living in the north, people easily imagine this guy sitting in his science station quite far away from people – which is actually true now! At the end of the road we have to cross, like, three tunnels and avalanche shelters. It’s really difficult to come here.
Am I right in thinking you refer to your studio as the ‘Polar Station’ as well?
I do, yeah.
You’ve moved away from Tromsø to an island now. What’s the setting?
I live by the outer coast on an island called Senja [around 100km from Tromsø]. I can see mountains behind the houses left and right, and in front of the houses I see the ocean. Next you see the horizon – but what you’re looking at next is actually the North Pole.
You’ve left a few times, such as your period in Krakow, but you’ve always returned to the far north of Norway. What is it that draws you back?
I really like these small communities. You go to the post office to send records and people know you. Everybody knows each other.
“When I’m outdoors, when I climb or ski, I don’t think about music”
And you stopped touring a couple of years ago sort of because of the general bustle and stress of it?
Yeah. I’m not into that – and it’s even harder to travel from where I’m living now, because now I have to drive the car three hours to the small airport and flights are cancelled because of bad weather. I’m not playing so often. I try to avoid playing in the winter months because the roads are often closed – I don’t take the risk. I’ve been travelling, doing concerts every month since the early ‘90s, which is like 30 years, so I’m a bit tired of travelling.
You documented your 2001 trip to Tibet in detail – in words, pictures and on the album, Cho Oyu 8201m in 2006. Has mountaineering had an effect on your music?
Often when I’m outdoors, when I climb or ski, I don’t think about music. When I make music I often don’t think much about the mountains either, you know? It’s kind of two separate worlds for me. The Cho Oyu thing, it’s funny because it was quite expensive to go on this expedition. I had to find a reason to deduct the costs as an artist. That came up, like, “Yes, we’ll make these field recordings and release it on a record, then I can deduct the cost from the whole exhibition.” I even got funding from a Norwegian arts council to do it, and then I had the proof: “This is actually a field recording trip, not a family expedition!”
Was there any particular reason you released it under your own name rather than Biosphere?
Because it doesn’t have any tracks, it’s mostly field recordings – it was a bit too much to release a Biosphere album without music.
I was going to ask why that trip was significant enough to record and release, but it was so you could get the cash!
[Laughs] Not only, of course! But yeah, I could mix those two – music and climbing.
Have you worked on any other projects like that?
I released a 12” on Touch from the Stromboli volcano. We were sitting at a crater – it’s two sides, with just these explosions you hear from the crater.
Are you still an avid mountaineer?
Last summer I was helicopter-rescued from a peak right behind my house, this ‘celebrity rescue’ from a mountain peak! It was me and my girlfriend – we managed to climb to the top but we didn’t have a long enough rope to abseil down, so in the end we tried to find other ways down, but we didn’t and it started to get dark. So we had to call 113 and were rescued by helicopter.
I’m surprised it didn’t appear in the electronic music press…
It was on Facebook! [Laughs] After that I haven’t climbed any mountains. I’ve been climbing since I was 15 and I never had any accidents. I’ve been really lucky, so I thought maybe I should quit. Time to quit!